The White House sharply escalated its attacks Tuesday on Republicans trying to stop Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice from succeeding Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state. Press secretary Jay Carney described GOP lawmakers as being gripped by a politically fueled "obsession" with a series of television appearances Rice made shortly after the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in which she wrongly suggested the attack had stemmed from a demonstration over an anti-Muslim video rather than a terrorist assault.
Carney's comments came after Rice met privately on Capitol Hill with Republican senators who have said they intend to block her nomination if President Barack Obama chooses her to replace Clinton as the nation's top diplomat. Rice also acknowledged for the first time, in a written statement issued by her office, that her initial public comments on the Benghazi assault were wrong because there had been no protest outside the compound.
Carney said the U.S. still does not know who carried out the assault, which claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. But he said GOP focus on Rice's early statements was a politically motivated distraction from efforts to identify those responsible for the killings.
"The questions that remain to be answered have to do with what happened in Benghazi, who was responsible for the deaths of four Americans, including our ambassador, and what steps we need to take to ensure that something like that doesn't happen again." Carney said.
In appearance after appearance, Rice said that American intelligence had pinned the blame on the assault on extremists who took advantage of a demonstration outside the facility.
Tuesday, Rice acknowledged the information initially provided by the intelligence community was wrong.
"Neither I nor anyone else in the administration intended to mislead the American people at any stage in this process, and the administration updated Congress and the American people as our assessments evolved," Rice said.
Rice, accompanied by Acting CIA Director Michael Morell, met with Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who have accused Rice (and the Obama administration in general) of misleading the public by tying the assault to the video. Republicans have suggested the administration hoped to blunt the potential political impact of the attack—the first to claim the life of an American ambassador in 30 years—shortly before the presidential election.
"Bottom line: I'm more disturbed now than I was before," Graham told reporters after the meeting. "We are significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got and some that we didn't get," McCain said.
Carney shot back, saying there were "no unanswered questions" about Rice's early televised statements.
"The focus on—some might say obsession on—comments made on Sunday shows seems to me and to many to be misplaced," Carney said. "I know that Sunday shows have vaunted status in Washington, but they have almost nothing to do—in fact zero to do—with what happened in Benghazi."
And neither, to hear Carney tell it, did Rice.
"Ambassador Rice has no responsibility for collecting, analyzing and providing intelligence, nor does she have responsibility as the United States ambassador to the United Nations for diplomatic security around the globe," he said.
So why, then, did the White House anoint Rice the administration point person to answer questions about a possible intelligence failure and consular security? Why not Secretary of State Clinton? Director of National Intelligence James Clapper? Defense Secretary Leon Panetta? National Security Adviser Tom Donilon?
"She is a principal on the president's foreign policy team," Carney said.
He added, "To this day it is the assessment of this administration and of our intelligence community … that they acted at least in part in response to what they saw happening in Cairo and took advantage of that situation."
In other words, according to one well-placed source, the perpetrators of the attack may have concluded that anger at the video gave them the maximum opportunity to get sympathy or support across the Muslim world, and might even inspire copycat attacks. Rice's much-dissected Sept. 16 comments broadly follow those lines.
Obama has fiercely defended Rice, while carefully declining to say whether he has chosen her to succeed Clinton. Another leading contender is the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry.
McCain and Graham have pledged to try to filibuster her confirmation, but they are well short of the votes needed to do so.